Friday, 20 January 2012

Violence in Office

The Law Centre is surging with people. More and more have eviction notices, court dates and tight benefit appeal deadlines. Volunteers and staff perch in every office, trying to advise the poor and the upset.

The photocopier hums as Kim meticulously turns over piles of paper and documents. A member of staff is sitting with Pierre, a shattered refugee who, it turns out, has been drinking. We don't have alarm bells (heck, we ain't got staplers) and he becomes florid, incoherent and waves his arms around. All at once he becomes terrifying.

One of the other lawyers speaks some French, and eventually he seems pacified and burst into tears. His history is truly heartbreaking, he has serious mental health concerns and suddenly he falls asleep.

We shepherd him out without calling the police and he seems brighter and more happy. "Adieu"says the member of staff rustily and Pierre looks crushed. "Au Revoir" says the member of staff and suddenly his smile is like a sunbeam. Man, this French is tough.

Years ago Patrick, a sad old man drinking and lost from his family was evicted from social housing for being an annoying drunk. We argued that he was vulnerable because he had a tendency to self harm. The Authority deemed the risk low. We explained to him why this was the end of the line.

Patrick perfectly understood the legal niceties of risk assessments, and on the day of his eviction arrived at our office blind drunk and cut his wrists in the bathroom. An ambulance came and he survived. He also bled all over the donated children's toys which forced us to throw them all away.

We have a policy that prohibits abuse of staff, racist ranting and threatening behaviour. Yet vulnerable people with severe mental health problems increasingly come to our door. It seems we are the favourite port of call for those who drink at  the last chance saloon.

Eventually another client begins to scream. It might be something that the Council or their landlord is doing to them. It might be blame and recrimination towards our advisers who have not warded their misfortunes with legal argument sufficiently. In the end it makes little difference.

Working in this environment takes its toll. All that stress, all that shouting, the adrenaline becomes poisonous after a while. Experienced lawyers, trained to work with the worst of the worst, can't keep on working in these conditions.

In a sense I agree with Kenneth Clarke and Jonathan Djanogli, sponsors of the Bill that will strip most funding from social welfare Legal Aid. If the public services worked properly, and they should, I would happily hang up my shingle, because there would be no need for a lawyer.

No need for a lawyer then? Yet cases for the Social Worker and the Therapist keep on arriving at our door. When we are gone, where will these people, these human beings, be sent to next?

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